The politicians' fear of youth culture

Have you noticed how the hackneyed phrase 'antisocial behaviour' is generally in the same sentence as teenager?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I made television programmes for them three decades ago - but these days I reluctantly admit I'm old enough to be their granny. I don't claim to know what music they like or why they wear what they do, and apart from a shared enthusiasm for Little Britain and the Libertines we don't have much in common. All the same, it's hard not to feel immense sympathy for young people, those irritating members of the population who are rarely out of the headlines.

I made television programmes for them three decades ago - but these days I reluctantly admit I'm old enough to be their granny. I don't claim to know what music they like or why they wear what they do, and apart from a shared enthusiasm for Little Britain and the Libertines we don't have much in common. All the same, it's hard not to feel immense sympathy for young people, those irritating members of the population who are rarely out of the headlines.

It's already obvious that this much-criticised group is going to be the "problem" that the three main political parties set out to deal with in the coming election. I don't want to be an apologist for youth, but it seems inevitable. Have you noticed how the hackneyed phrase "antisocial behaviour" is generally in the same sentence as teenager?

Yesterday, Mr Howard was at it again, making a speech targeting "yob culture" - another over-used cliché. Now he wants to prevent young offenders from getting a driving licence, as well as suspending the licences of those issued with Asbos (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) who break them - currently almost half. But perhaps we should start deciding what exactly is antisocial behaviour?

Asbos were a Blair initiative designed to restrict the movement of badly behaved and disruptive citizens, generally those under 18, and have already been issued for a whole range of misdeeds. A naughty herd of pigs who wandered around a Norfolk village received an Asbo, as well as a woman near York who hit her brother with some rhubarb. An aggressive wheel clamper has been Asbo-ed as well as whole families in the North, a female who answered the door in her underwear, and dozens of tribes of unruly brothers and sisters all over Britain.

Instead of counselling, conversation and engagement, we have movement restriction and homes used as prisons. There is no real evidence that Asbos change behaviour in the long term or help to re-educate those who need to understand their responsibilities to their communities.

Some days I wake up and think that there's nothing the Tories would like more than the return of detention centres where anyone who causes problems at home, in the street, or at school (under Mr Howard's ruthless proposals these pupils will be totally excluded) can have a number stencilled on their heads, be issued with fatigues and condemned to two years' square bashing until they come to their senses.

The Tories talk about yob culture as if it's an epidemic which is sweeping Britain and about to infect us all. Funny how I can manage to live in central London, next to a large housing estate, and walk down to the shops and back every day without being mugged, raped, gobbed on, or knifed. And the same is true for most of Britain.

It takes one footballer - the horrible Lee Bowyer - to start a fight on a pitch and suddenly it's held up as an example of Yob Britain in action all over again. The Tories hate the young, they find them unpredictable, unnecessary to their scheme of things. Their natural voters are the old, the middle class, home owners and the haves, as opposed to those who haven't even had a vote yet.

Young people are a rich and vital resource this country needs to harness and engage with, not a rising tide of pestilence that needs to be tagged, controlled, restricted and demonised.

Young people, from footballers to internet millionaires, from website and game designers to record producers to singers and dancers, earn this country millions of pounds in cash and acres of credibility world wide. Funny how Tony nailed his flag to their flagpole until he decided to target youth crime, binge drinking and unruly pupils. Now he wants on-the-spot fines for everything from chewing gum to public drunkenness.

Mr Howard would have the parents of young people who break their Asbos subject to supervision orders forcing them to spend a specified amount of time with their offspring. He wants to enable head teachers to make parents sign binding contracts so that "yobs" can be marched into line, or else face exclusion. All this makes me so very grateful that I'm not a teenager today.

God knows, I was mouthy, badly behaved at school, and loathed my parents. Under this projected regime I would have been tagged, excluded and condemned to spend hours at home with my horrible mother. I can assure you all that the end result would not have turned me into a model citizen - it would probably, as Mr Howard's plan will, have ended in matricide.

A cramped flat with little or no privacy is hardly the ideal setting to engender an appetite for the finer points of etiquette and social skills. And preventing the young from driving cars is hardly going to stop them having a passion for engines and machines, is it? A better solution would be to stockpile wrecked cars and instead of funding clubs after hours on school premises (a place everyone from teachers to pupils has seen quite enough of by 5pm), set up workshops in disused factories on industrial estates where kids can be trained in mechanics, rebuild engines and go banger and bike racing every evening, making all the noise they like.

Instead of demolishing houses, pay kids to rebuild them at the weekends, assist plumbers and earn real wages. Enable them to spread their wings instead of channelling them into smaller and smaller spaces. By all means make people do community work to pay for what they've wrecked, but let's be careful - we're not talking about chain gangs, but creating a sense of local pride. Give the young a chance to make places they can call their own and use, not just a bus shelter or a bench outside the chip shop.

In a couple of months' time I shall be talking at the Brighton Literary Festival. It's a good job I am not a tenant on one of their housing estates because I would stand a very good chance of being evicted from my home. The officials in charge of the Hollingdean Estate have decided that new tenants must sign an agreement promising not to swear in public, play loud music or drive carelessly. All this is designed to combat - you've guessed it - antisocial behaviour. I am not a woman who minces her words, but luckily I have the luxury of choosing to reside elsewhere, and posters for my public appearances generally contain that multi-purpose caveat "may contain strong language".

I accept that some people drink too much, hang around on street corners, threaten members of the public and create a nuisance. The rise of crime involving guns and knives is a cause for concern. But don't assume that society's shortcomings are the fault of one group of people.

There is a fine line between youthful exuberance and criminal activity, and most of us have been through a period in our lives when we occasionally indulged in bad behaviour. Most antisocial people of today will be the responsible mortage holders of tomorrow. Except politicians, that is - they inhabit a weird parallel world. Mr Howard revealed to Attitude magazine recently that he didn't really know any obviously gay people until he met his wife, Sandra Paul, years ago. Where had he been? His attitude to the young is a revelation - he simply views them as a threat, and his party is plugging the politics of fear.

Comments